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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barbara Ellen

The week in TV: Funny Woman; Happy Valley; Consent; The Shamima Begum Story

Gemma Arterton in Funny Woman.
‘Nuclear-strength moxie’: Gemma Arterton in Funny Woman. © Sky Uk Limited Photograph: © Sky Uk Limited

Funny Woman (Sky Max/Now)
Happy Valley (BBC One) | iPlayer
Consent (Channel 4) | All 4
The Shamima Begum Story (BBC Two) | iPlayer

“Can women be funny?” runs the old comedy query, which of course isn’t a question at all: rather, sexist drivel in flimsy disguise. As for TV dramas about female comics, recently there’s been the excellent Hacks, starring Jean Smart as a waspish Vegas veteran, and the New York-set The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, still wisecracking after four series.

Now there’s Sky’s six-part Funny Woman, written by Morwenna Banks and directed by Oliver Parker. Based on the 2014 Nick Hornby novel Funny Girl, it stars Gemma Arterton as Barbara, a Blackpool Belle beauty queen who tosses aside her tiara and waves goodbye to her father and aunt (David Threlfall and Rosie Cavaliero) to move to swinging 60s London in the hope of becoming the UK’s Lucille Ball. Struggles and traumas ensue: working in a snooty department store; fan dancing; sexual assault on a date (“Kick him in the cock!” someone yells). The newly christened Sophie Straw finds agents (Rupert Everett and Banks) and bags a part in a television sitcom controlled by a smitten producer (Arsher Ali).

Funny Woman doesn’t stint on period detail. There’s music (the Byrds, the Kinks); a screen that keeps chopping itself into groovy rectangles. The flatlet Sophie shares with shopgirl friend Marj (Alexa Davies) is a single-girl sinkpit of knickers simmering in pans and drying stockings. Elsewhere, the show deals with everything from race, sexuality and chauvinism to acid trips, improvisational comedy and Sophie’s romance with a castmate smoothie played by Tom Bateman. “I’ve never met anyone like you,” he sighs. “What, northern?” she replies.

It’s easy to like Sophie, played with nuclear-strength moxie by Arterton, but even allowing for the times, there’s no buying into the central conceit of her as a raw, trailblazing comic talent – however much everyone around her keeps hammily insisting so. Funny Woman’s strength lies in its repertory-style ensemble energy. Everett goes full Alastair Sim with his flamboyant, magnificently ruined agent – even his hair looks moth-eaten.

So much for all the wild fan theories about the long-awaited final episode of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley (BBC One). At the risk of being a buzzkill (for anyone yet to catch up: spoilers ahead!), some elements seemed a tad rushed and scrappy. The scene involving Sgt Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), ex-con Alison (Susan Lynch) and some diazepam felt very pat. As did Catherine’s last-minute aside, back at the station, linking the pharmacist to the drugs and the murder. And that was your lot. No tense police showdowns with the wife-battering gym teacher or the jittery pharmacist. No thrilling, clammy sense of a net closing in, as in the previous two series.

Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley.
‘This finale screamed out to be a double episode’: Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in the last ever Happy Valley. BBC/Lookout Point Photograph: Screen Grab/BBC/Lookout Point

Nor was I happy, earlier in the series, with Tommy Lee Royce being able to escape from a courtroom, clambering over a glass-walled dock like a Yorkshire Spider-Man. But that’s quite enough whingeing. The climactic scene in Catherine’s home, between our no-nonsense, Taser-wielding heroine and a wounded Tommy (brilliant James Norton), was all you could wish for. Tommy’s needy sociopathy (“I forgive you”) clearing like thick smog for a brief, crucial moment as he acknowledged all Catherine had done for his son and her grandson, Ryan. Catherine’s realisation that Ryan wasn’t at all like his father (“he’s a prince”). Tommy’s self-immolation not only nodded to the very first scene of Happy Valley, it also fed one of the best lines, from Catherine to her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran): “I think I might have singed one of your crocheted blankets.”

Extended by a paltry 10 minutes, this finale screamed out to be a double episode: a bold harvesting of loose threads. Still, what a small-screen jewel Wainwright has given us over nine years and three series. And what astonishing all-round performances, not least from Lancashire – unquestionably Britain’s answer to Frances McDormand.

Consent (Channel 4) is a one-off drama examining sexual consent and harassment within toxic school culture. Directed by Nadira Amrani and written by Emma Dennis-Edwards, it’s based on hundreds of real-life testimonies from state and privately educated young people.

Tom Victor, centre, as Archie in Consent.
Tom Victor, centre, as Archie in Consent. Channel 4 Photograph: Simon Ridgway/Channel 4

Lashay Anderson plays 18-year-old black scholarship student Natalie, who flirts with white rich kid Archie (Tom Victor). However, Archie’s friends (among them Raffy, House of the Dragon’s Ty Tennant) run a crude chat group (“Stick your dick in her mouth. Shut her up”), masturbate together to porn online, and demand video proof of sexual congress. At a birthday party for Archie and his twin, Alice (Heartstopper’s Rhea Norwood), he and Natalie have sex, but is she in a fit state to consent? And why does the elite college rush to protect Archie?

Consent is bumpy at times: the device of Archie’s chat group physically acting out messages becomes particularly tired. But the mainly young cast (Fresh Meat’s Kimberley Nixon plays a teacher) do a great job of outlining where #MeToo/consent interacts with peer pressure, race, class and entitlement. It’s well worth a look, but parents may need a stiff drink first.

Shamima Begum wearing a baseball cap
‘Nerves or self-sabotage’? Shamima Begum. Photograph: Joshua Baker/BBC

Few subjects are as divisive as Shamima Begum, one of the schoolgirls who left Britain to join Isis in 2015. She was denied the right to return and had her British citizenship revoked in 2019. BBC One documentary The Shamima Begum Story, made by Josh Baker (also behind the recent Begum-podcast I’m Not a Monster), strives to unpick the nightmare. Baker interviews politicians, fellow journalists and the east Londoner herself, now living in a refugee camp in northern Syria. Was she groomed and trafficked? Does she pose a threat to national security?

Begum, now 23, looks thoroughly westernised, with sunglasses and painted fingernails. It’s hard to believe that she has already lost three children. As she speaks, you wonder if it’s nerves or self-sabotage provoking her sudden inappropriate behaviour (grinning/scoffing). She needs prompting to express sympathy for the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. She looks sad at the prospect of never returning to Britain, but grins when asked what she’d say to her teenage self: “Don’t do it, bitch!” I’ve long held the opinion that if children can be sexually groomed, the political equivalent can happen too. While I was sometimes disconcerted by how oddly Begum comes across in this documentary, maybe there’s honesty in that.

Star ratings (out of five)
Funny Woman ★★★
Happy Valley
The Shamima Begum Story

What else I’m watching

Top Dog
(Channel 4)
In the mood for Nordic-noir? Walter Presents… delivers an odd-couple Swedish crime drama in which two very different people – a lawyer (Josefin Asplund) and a convict (Alexej Manvelov) – join forces to find a missing person.

Dear Edward
(Apple TV+)
A new emotion-soaked US drama series about a 12-year-old boy who is the only survivor of a plane crash and becomes part of a support group for relatives of the deceased.

Mo Gilligan.
Brits presenter Mo Gilligan. ITV Photograph: John Marshall/ITV

The Brit Awards
Presented by Mo Gilligan from the O2 in London, this year’s Brits ceremony was mired in controversy over the absence of female nominees for best artist before it even started. Performers include Wet Leg, Harry Styles and Lizzo.

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